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Making friends with the enemy: Breaking down UM-MSU with Chris of TOC

I'd argue that few blogs do a better job covering their team than The Only Colors covers Michigan State basketball, and Chris was kind enough to answer my questions in preparation for the game Tuesday.


Most of my knowledge of this Michigan State team comes from my friends griping about it the morning after games, so give me and the rest of our readers a quick primer on the expectations for the Spartans coming into the season, and what kind of team this is.

It's certainly been a team that has grown throughout the season. The opening loss to UConn in Germany was a frustrating way to start, but responding with a win over Kansas in Atlanta showed us this team could actually be pretty good. However, the rest of the nonconference schedule and early part of the Big Ten was worrisome. They were struggling to get by teams like Bowling Green, Boise State and even Tuskegee for a little bit. They fell apart in the final minutes against Minnesota in what was an otherwise decent performance in the first game after the mid-season transfer of Brandan Kearney. That was followed by a hard-fought game against Purdue and narrow wins over Iowa and Nebraska. The team was winning, but the stats and performances weren't looking championship-worthy.

But then that scuffle between Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson happened at the hotel in Pennsylvania, and this has been a different, more focused team since. They beat Penn State, and followed that with a home win against Ohio State and a road win over Wisconsin. They lost by five at Indiana, but it finally seemed the team could actually contend. Then a lackluster first-half against Illinois was paired with game-ending injuries to Travis Trice (head) and Gary Harris (back, in addition to the shoulders injured early in the year). Suddenly, this team was very shorthanded. Trice hasn't returned yet. They came back for a home win over the Illini and had a gutsy home win over Minnesota (where everyone else got hurt) and a road win at Purdue, which leaves us where we're at. This team has a number of close wins and is beat up, but this 20-4 start actually ties for the second-best under Tom Izzo, which is quite an accomplishment with the way this league is this year.

When the season began, a Big Ten championship seemed a bit off, mostly due to the talent Indiana and Michigan had. But 11 games into the conference season, I think everyone would agree the Spartans deserve to be right there. Somehow.

It seems that Michigan State has been using a lot of Nix and Payne at the same time. Is this out of necessity or is it a significant matchup issue for other teams that Izzo is trying to exploit.

At the beginning of the year, it was something MSU wanted to exploit, given the skills of the two. But after the Miami loss, Izzo scrapped the idea because things weren't working. Once Kearney transferred, Denzel Valentine was put in the starting lineup, but he was having turnover problems. So Izzo decided to go back to the two big men starting. But then Payne and Dawson got in a fight and it got delayed another game. As I mentioned above, the team has taken off since then. Payne's outside shooting ability coupled with Nix's passing ability makes the duo quite a difficult matchup on offense, and Payne's perimeter defense has improved, as well. It's very possible Payne sticks at the four next season, even with Nix graduating.

Still, the OR numbers haven't been that great (30.9% in the Big Ten, which is seventh). You'd think playing two centers would help that, plus Branden Dawson's OR ability, but it hasn't happened for whatever reason. Nix isn't the tallest center, and can't get up that great, and Payne is ending up away from the basket a bit (especially when he shoots), but MSU has been shooting better, which helps overcome that.

Trey Burke is making his best case for POY right now, and he just put together three very good games against three of the Big Ten's best defenses. How do you think Appling and the rest of the Michigan State defense will fare trying to slow Burke down?

Trey Burke is right up there for national POY, in my opinion, and the biggest key for MSU is going to be pick-and-roll defense. Keith Appling is great moving around screens, but he's going to need help from MSU's big men. Unfortunately, MSU hasn't been great defending the pick-and-roll. Their performance against U-M at Breslin last year was one of the best in a long time, and that will need to happen again. Appling injured his shoulder against Minnesota, so he's nicked up a bit. He's also been getting in foul trouble. That would obviously be bad against Michigan.

Michigan has gotten a lot of press because of the contributions of its freshmen class, but Michigan State has a couple talented freshmen of its own in Garry Harris and Denzel Valentine. What kind of role do these two have on the team, and are you concerned about either of them matching up with Michigan?

From the very first game, Gary Harris showed that he is not afraid, and that has been a welcome sight for MSU on the wing. His driving has lessened and he's become more of a jump shooter recently, but I credit that to his shoulder and back injuries. He's playing through a lot of pain (didn't practice the day before Purdue), but MSU has gotten just about all they could have expected out of him.

Valentine has been interesting. He's been given the "mini Magic" comparison because he's a big guard who can make some unreal passes, but most of this season has been about calming him down. He's had turnover problems trying to make too many difficult passes. His minutes were trending downward before the injuries to Trice and Harris, and he's had some solid performances in recent games. If Trice is out again, Valentine will be the backup point guard, and he performed pretty well in that role at Purdue when Appling was dealing with foul trouble. He's got a really bright future, but he's still learning the ropes.

Michigan State is currently leading the way in the Big Ten at 9-2 (as of this writing at halftime of the Ind-OSU game), but the Spartans have one of the toughest stretch runs in the Big Ten with a home and away against Michigan, a trip to OSU, and home dates with Wisconsin and Indiana. At this point it looks iron-clad that a team with 14 wins will get at least a share of the Big Ten title. Can Michigan State get there?

It's hard to say. If I was a betting man, I'd say no, but this team made it this far somehow. While the schedule is tough, the good news is they get the top teams at home. So while playing at Michigan and Ohio State is tough, they can make up for it with home games against Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. It's certainly no small task, but they're most definitely in this race and can take it to the end. If they lose Tuesday, however, that would put them in a tough spot of having to win at Crisler. Let's not do that.

What worries you about Michigan? What are the keys to a Michigan State win?

It's the scoring outside of Burke, and that comes back to the pick-and-roll I mentioned above. Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas have struggled in recent weeks, but if they get going, that obviously goes a really long way. Burke has at least 15 points in every Big Ten game, the key is limiting his help, and the pick-and-roll defense will have to be top-notch. Related, I really worry about TIm Hardaway Jr. When he's on, he's unguardable with that size and shooting ability. If he's feeling it, as he has been in recent games, no amount of defense is going to stop him. It would be nice to see him have an off-game, or declare for the NBA draft really early.

Do you consider Michigan an important basketball rival? How many teams would the Wolverines fall behind in the Big Ten? How many more years of Michigan being relevant will it take before Michigan starts being the game instead of a game?

It already is the game, at least to me. A number of MSU fans want to see a Sweet 16 before they hand out respect, but that's going to come soon. There's a reason Tuesday's game is a Whiteout. The only other true hoops rival I would say MSU has is Wisconsin. Bo Ryan still has a winning record against Izzo, and there's a lot of bad blood there (#BorderBattle), but Michigan is Michigan. All other Big Ten games depend on the opponent's record. Even when the Wolverines weren't any good, it was a home game everyone was pumped for (often to take out the football frustration). Add in the fact Michigan is a legit top-10 team now and these teams will battle for Big Ten championships for years to come, it's only going to get bigger. My only hope is this rivalry gets its fair credit nationally. I asked you about the hoops rivalry with Ohio State and got the sense it matters more when OSU is good, and still comes off the football rivalry. MSU-Michigan is about so much more, and I'm glad it's being featured on ESPN's "Rivalry Week."

How do you see this game going? Who wins, by how much, and why?

Like these teams' most recent games leading up to this, it's hard to see this one not coming down to the end. KenPom nearly has this as a toss-up. I really wish we could see these teams at full-strength, but I can't make excuses. MSU's offense is starting to look smooth (aside from rough first halves against Illinois and Minnesota), and having Travis Trice would be a huge boost. I'll go with home court being the difference in a two-point win for MSU, but certainly wouldn't be surprised if the Wolverines won this one and put themselves in a great position for a conference title.